Mike Oldfield: A Rare Interview With The English Guitarist, Studio Wizard, and Composer of "Tubular Bells"


Guitar Player

Releasing a solo album of epic proportions at the age of 20 is uncommon for any musician. Performers usually establish themselves first as bandmembers; then they seek the backing of a record company in the hopes of becoming solo artists. But Mike Oldfield, known only as the bassist (and sometime-guitarist) of singer/guitarist/bassist Kevin Ayers's band, the Whole World, took the precarious step of first releasing a solo LP and achieved remarkable success. On May 25, 1973 - only 20 years and ten days after Oldfield was born in Reading, England - Virgin Records unveiled his first album: 'Tubular Bells', a work that consisted of literally hundreds of overdubbed instruments in a cornucopia of textures. Since its release, more than ten million copies of the album have been sold, and orchestral rendering has also been recorded, and excerpts from the piece were used for the 1974 movie 'The Exorcist.' Since then, Mike has completed three other album projects - 'Hergest Ridge', 'Ommadawn', and 'Boxed'. His latest LP, 'Incantations', was recorded in the middle of 1978 and is due to be in the stores by January 1979. He has also collaborated with composer/arranger David Bedford (a fellow Whole World alumnus) and performed on Bedford's 'The Odyssey', 'The Rime of the Ancinent Mariner', and 'Star's End' albums.

When did you initially find yourself being drawn towards music?

I suppose the first things I liked were by the Beatles, really. After than I started liking (English acoustic guitarists) Bert Jansch and John Renbourn (see GP, Nov '71) when I was about 10 or 11. I started playing on a 6-string acoustic guitar that my father gave me - an Eko or something - and the first thing I learned to do was a claw-hammer pick. I was really knocked out with it. I could just about play "Angie", the Bert Jansch version of the Davy Graham (see GP Nov '71) tune. It involved a lot of fingerpicking.

Did you play mainly folk music?

Yes. I did a little bit of it with the 6-string, but it didn't last long. I switched over to electric when I was about 12 or 13. I had a Futura II guitar that cost about six pounds. So then I had a little amp - I don't remember what kind. It was a little 6-watt thing with a loose speaker that I kept in a cardboard box. I had a little electric group, too. We played in youth clubs and at dances, doing songs by groups like the Shadows. After the electric group, I decided that I was going to give up the guitar, to give up music.

How long was your retirement?

That only lasted for about six months. Then I persuaded my father to buy an old 12-string acoustic guitar for me. I used to play things like (mid-1960s pop group) Gerry and the Pacemakers' 'Ferry Cross the Mersey.' Eventually I wanted another 6-string, but I couldn't persuade my father to buy me one, so I took half the strings off of the 12-string and made it into a 6-string. I used that in a duo with a friend of mine.

Where did you perform?

We used to play at a couple of folk clubs in Reading. We did some original songs that were quite involved. Most were the typical adolescent poetry - the painful stuff. Then we moved to Essex from Reading, and when I was 15 my sister Sally asked me to join her to play as a duo. We worked out some songs, and I left school so that we could work professionally. We had a group called Sallyangie, and we recorded one album for Transatlantic Records in 1968 called 'Children of the Sun' (out of print).

How long did the band last?

Well, Sally and I split it up after about a year, and I started my own rock band called Barefeet. I got a 66 Fender Telecaster then. My brother Terry and a couple of other people were in the band, but it folded after about a year. Then I joined Kevin Ayers's band when I was 16.

Did you play guitar with Ayers?

No, I played bass. First I had to learn how to play it, because I had never played it before. It's not as easy as it looks. It's a whole different concept, and it was fantastic training to learn how to do it.

How is your approach to the bass different from your approach to guitar?

In the same way that bass playing has to fulfill a different function. You can only play one note most of the time, and you have to give a bottom to the whole thing, just as you would on the organ or something similar. It is nice to give a bottom end to the music and do something creative with it at the same time, too. Maybe, oddly enough, it might be some part of the main tune disguised in the form of a bass line.

Do you try to bring any of your guitar licks into your bass style?

I try not to, but if I were to, that's just a problem of being a guitarist who also plays bass. But I think because I played bass for several years, I know what it's about and when to do certain things.

What kind of bass were you using with the Whole World?

It was Fender Precision, and it was a beautiful thing. I'm not sure how old it was, but it was lovely to play.

Did you switch over to guitar again with that band?

Well, what used to do is flop over--I'd play bass most of the time, and Kevin would play rhythm guitar. Then we'd switch and he would play bass, and I'd have a lead solo at the end of the set. I would do a completely unaccompanied electric solo then, and depending on my mood I used to let it feed back and I would do somersaults all over the floor.

Were you primarily interested in being a bass player then?

Well, by the end of it, I really wanted to start my own group, to start making my own music, and to play guitar. But at the beginning, I was very happy to be a bass player. It was a very good experience.

Where did you go after leaving the Whole World in 1972?

I did occasional jobs here and there. I was adapting the play 'Hair' for six months or so, and I played a couple of gigs with (vocalist/guitarist) Alex Harvey. That was before I actually got a contract together. Then I was introduced to Virgin Records, who spend about a year making up their minds about whether to take 'Tubular Bells'. I sent them my demo tape that I had made on a Bang & Olufson home stereo tape recorder. A year later we made the actual 'Tubular Bells'.

What was your original aim on that album?

I just wanted to make something that sounded large-scale on my own; I wanted an orchestral effect. It was enjoyable working in the studio, just messing about with the equipment. And I found that it was easier to work on my own at that period.

When you record your albums, do you lay down a rhythm guitar track first?

No, I put on a timing track, which goes most of the way through. Then I add either rhythm guitar or piano, or something that is in tune, so that I can play everything else in tune to it.

How do you get that sustained, almost violin-like sound from your electric guitar?

It's an involved process. I go from the guitar into a treble booster, then run that signal into a little battery-powered Vox amplifier. I turn it up and get a bit of distortion off of that. Then I connect the output of the Vox into the microphone input of a Teac stereo recorder. I overload this mike input and then take the output and route it into a very old graphic equalizer on which I have all the middle frequency bands boosted. Then I run the output of that into the Teac's other channel's line input--to bring the signal down to the right level. So, now that I've got it at the right level, I plug this into the desk (mix board). But it's still not finished yet. From the desk, it goes into the Kepex (a sophisticated studio noise gate), which cuts out all the horrible noise when I'm not playing. Then the signal goes into another graphic equalizer, which I use to really get the final sound I want. I leave all the settings on the other stuff the same all the time. If I want to change the sound, I'll do it with that second graphic equalizer. Then the signal is sent to a limiter to stop all the big peaks.

Then it goes right into the recorder?

Yeah. Once I do all of that, I have got a pretty good sound, pretty clean and clear. I often pipe it down from the control room into a Fender Twin Reverb amp in the main studio. Then I mike that. It gives a real warmth to the sound--you have room acoustics; it's not so electronic sounding.

It has a mellower sound to it, then?

That's the idea, really. You get a lovely effect; you can get feedback harmonics.

How do you do that?

MO: If you get the level right, you can get your notes to sustain forever. And depending on what angle I hold the guitar at in relation to the speakers, I get feedback harmonics. I used this throughout 'First Excursions' (from 'Boxed').

Then you're emphasizing certain pitches?

Yes. It feeds back with one of the harmonics on the guitar on whatever string I am holding down. Depending on which angle I hold the guitar, a different harmonic will sound.

Do you use any other effect?

I have a specially-made parametric equalizer that has two footpedals. It sweeps through the entire frequency range of the guitar; it's like a wah-wah, except it's a much nicer wah-wah.

Do you use any kind of echo units?

Yes, I use an EMT-250--it's a digital plate machine. I also have a quadraphonic plate reverb, but I like the digital delay better.

What kinds of guitars are you using currently?

Well, I've got a Gibson L-5 electric and my old Telecaster. About seven years ago, I added an additional Bill Lawrence pickup on to the Tele. It's got a phasing switch that lets me reverse the phasing on the pickups. It's also got an absolutely beautiful neck. If want to play a guitar for pleasure, I play the Telecaster. I also play my Les Paul Jr. It's old--from the mid-50's - and it's my main instrument. It's good for lead, and it's also got that brilliant sort of really bright sound. It's good for everything. Sometimes when I want a bright sound with tremolo, I'll plug it through the Fender amp in the main studio so that I can get that sort of ìshaft of lightî glistening effect. I certainly use the Les Paul Jr. the most, even though it's a really tatty old thing. But it sounds so beautiful, and I like old electrics.

Is there any specific reason?

I don't know; I'm a bit funny. I don't mind new acoustics. But I really like the electrics old. I think it's just because you have to skip up and down the neck and you don't want any sharp angles on the frets, or the fingerboard to be brand new. You sort of want hand grease to be rubbed into it for a few years. I also have an acoustic bass guitar made by Tony Zemaitis (see GP, Apr 75). There's something about the tone of his guitar - a lovely, woody resonance. You can hear it on 'Ommadawn'.

What made you decide to have an acoustic bass made?

I originally went to see Zemaitis because I thought I would treat myself to a beautiful guitar. He said, "By the way, I also make acoustic basses." He also made a 6-string acoustic steel-string for me, which can be heard on 'Ommadawn' in an acoustic solo just before the bagpipes. I use it when I want a really bright sound - as a solo instrument. It doesn't work very well as a backing instrument. I usually use my Martin D-35 for that. I also have a Martin D12-28 12-string. The D-35 is a lovely 6-string, but the Martin and the Zemaitis are two totally different guitars. I'm very careful about the Zemaitis. I don't drop it or anything, because it was built just the way I wanted it, as far as color and inlays. But the Martin I'll take into the house by the fire or something, because I'll play that anytime.

What's the difference in sound between the Martin and the Zemaitis?

The Zemaitis has a strange resonance here and there; it's always very bright and crisp, whereas the D-35 is smooth all the way up and the bass is sort of even-toned, but I don't like the top end at all. I also use the 12-string a lot. Going back to 'Ommadawn', I wanted a rhythmic texture, so I played three 12-strings, each processed through a limiter so that they were all of equal volume. With repeat echo added to them you get this fantastic sort of rumbling texture that was also vaguely rhythmic.

Do you have any classical guitars?

I have a Ramirez classical for when I want a Spanish guitar. It has Savarez bottom strings and Augustine for the higher ones. It's perfect. It's one of those instruments where you don't have to worry about the sound; you just put a mike in front of it and push the record button. I also have a Ramirez flamenco guitar, which has a sharper, more percussive sound.

What brand of string do you use on your other guitars?

On my electrics, I use Fender extra light-gauge Rock And Roll strings. On most of the acoustics I use Guild light gauge. On my Zemaitis and Fender Precision basses, I use Rotosound light-gauge strings. On my Gibson EB-3 bass, I have Gibson medium-gauges.

Do you use a pick?

Not usually. I fingerpick with my fingernails. You see, with my elaborate distortion setup, I have to damp all the strings that I'm not playing all the time. But I'll use a pick if I'm playing chords.

Do you see yourself mainly as a guitar player or a composer?

Actually, both. Guitar is the only instrument I can play, really. I'm not a multi-instrumentalist; anybody could play the piano as well as I can. Things like timpani and bells are very easy. You've just got to hit them. But the guitar is the only thing I can play - that's why I've got so many of them. In fact there's a surprising amount of guitar on all the records.

When you're composing a piece, where does the guitar fit in?

Well, you see, I don't actually sit down and say, "Right, I'm going to compose something." I just love playing things. I play the piano, or I play the guitar. I always improvise. I don't think that I'd play anything that I loathed. If I find something that I think is nice, I'll play it again, and if it seems really good enough I'll put it down on tape. Then I'll think of what else can go with it. Once thing leads to another, and then I'll find one more bit and stick that on, just building, building, building - until I've got a whole thing.

Do you compose mainly on the guitar?

I think I do more on the piano, really. But that's now. There are lots of parts on 'Tubular Bells' that I thought of on the guitar, but now I mostly use the piano.

Do you think working parts out on the piano changes the way you arrange your pieces?

Not really, because they're not composed on the piano or for the piano. I am always deciding what instrument I will finally have. And the same is true if it's done on guitar; I will be deciding what instrument I am actually going to use while I'm composing.

When you record the guitar, do you play in the control room?

Yes. I have a footswitch so that I can activate the recorder with my foot. I do all the electric guitar in the control room - sometimes acoustic guitar, too. I've got these lids on the tape recorder that come down to quiet them. I just sit there and put them on. If I want to record my Ramirez, say, so that it's really perfect, I would go into the main studio.

What is the focus of your latest album, 'Incantations'?

It's got quite a lot of Irish drum - called a bodrhan. It is used for a basic sort of rhythm track--a percussion track. And it's got some choral stuff on it; some of vocal lines are based on words from the poem 'Song of Hiawatha' by Longfellow. And there is music going with it. There is quite a lot of tuned percussion, such as vibraphones and marimba, and also a lot of guitar - mainly electric solos. There is also acoustic bass guitar and electric bass.

Are you joined by other people on this project?

I have a string section on it, as well as a choir in a couple of parts. And we are planning to do it live, eventually; perhaps we may even bring it to the United States.

What did you think of the success of 'Tubular Bells'?

Oh, I was delighted!

How did it happen that part of it was used for the movie, 'The Exorcist'?

My manager mentioned that an American film company wanted to use part of it for a movie which was expected to be very successful, and so I said okay. I didn't play any part in choosing which sections to use, however.

On 'Tubular Bells', speeded-up guitars are mentioned in the list of instruments used. Just what does that mean?

I do quite a lot of stuff at half-speed. I then play it back at the normal speed and get a funny effect; a different insight. I have an oscillator on the recorder to control the speed, but since I record at 30 (inches per second), I usually just flip it down to 15 to records, and play it back at 30. That's how I get a mandolin-like sound.

Do you use this primarily with electric guitar or acoustic?

I do do it much at all anymore, actually. When I used to do it, it was with the electric. This is because the acoustic sounds very pingy-pingy. With the electric, you can use a limiter so that it is really flat and doesn't sound too strange. There's not as much attack on each note then.

Do you listen to many other people's music?

Not really, no. I am too busy making music myself, and when I am not making music myself, I'd rather not listen to it. I generally end up doing things other than music.

In general, how do you view the contemporary guitar's role?

I don't think electric guitar is being used well enough, used as good as it can be. I think that it can be as expressive and beautiful - if not more beautiful - than a violin or viola, if it's used properly. You need all the technology to get that sound out. It doesn't have to be rock and mad screaming. It can be very beautiful.

Mike Oldfield Tubular.net
Mike Oldfield Tubular.net